Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To lose one hiker may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness

At the weekend, the fine weather which is characteristic of Japanese autumn finally broke out. Monday was a holiday, so after we'd got over our amazement at seeing the sun again, we had an overnight trip up Yatsugatake, justifiably one of Japan's most popular mountains. But this post isn't about our trip (which was excellent), but rather these poor people.

I'm joining the dots here from various brief news reports so might not be 100% correct, but the events occurred on a mountain we've climbed twice now (once at this time of year, and again just a couple of months ago), so we know it fairly well. According to the various news reports, this group of 6 women mostly in their 60s (plus a leader significantly younger), were basically overwhelmed by the strong wind and snow on Saturday while aiming for one of the two huts near the summit of Shiroumadake, which is a big bleak ~3000m peak in the North Alps. 3 were benighted on the mountain and died: another succumbed even after being rescued and brought to a hut.

I was one the verge of posting a rant about the incompetent leadership that put the walkers in this situation. But they were not complete novices (apparently they'd been on previous trips with the same guide), and have to take some responsibility for themselves. It's particularly sad that they must have walked straight past an energency shelter (just 4 walls and a roof, but they would have been out of the wind) and none of them were more than a few minutes walk from the huts when they were found. There are several points at which more prudent decision-making by anyone present would undoubtedly have saved several lives.

When in any doubt about the conditions, I'm quick to turn back. A couple of times I've subsequently regretted the decision - but I reckon that's a whole lot better than pressing on and regretting that choice!

2 comments:

Dano said...

I'm an avid, longtime backpacker and have a large daypack so I can put emergency gear in it when the weather is changeable (~ 300 days a year in Washington State).

That said, I've been in situations where there was trouble and I made bad decisions - fortunately nothing bad happened. I've also found a dayhiker in backcountry Yosemite who was out overnight in a t-shirt after his buddy (with all the gear) fell thru a snow bridge.

Anyway, all this to say fortunes can change in an instant and bad decisions compound each other until you are panicked and a good decision can't be seen a foot away. Age doesn't help either as you no longer have the strength, and being tired never helps decision-making.

This stuff happens all the time and panicking and making bad decisions happens in the mountains, on the road, in your basement, at the pub, in the shower...

Best,

D

James Annan said...

Backpacking at least implies an initial assumption of self-reliance. I think it's arguable that the huts encourage people to go ill-equipped - you can plan to arrive at the summit late in the day, cold and tired with little spare food and clothing. That leaves an uncomfortably narrow margin for error at this time of year.

OTOH the huts make the mountains accessible to thousands of people who would not otherwise be able to enjoy them.

At least 8 people died this weekend (the others were in 1s and 2s). The weather was certainly slightly harsher than usual - but this is mid-October, snow showers at 3000m are hardly exceptional.